Clutch Singer Neil Fallon Remembers When Rock 'n' Roll Was Dangerous
While a host of hard-rock groups still try to emulate the monolithic sounds of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Maryland-based rock juggernaut Clutch stands as a rare band that captures the relentless swing and ferocious groove that elevated those two iconic acts to greatness. For more than 20 years, drummer Jean-Paul Gaster and bassist Dan Maines have powered the endlessly inventive riffology of guitarist Tim Sult and the fiery wordplay of lead singer Neil Fallon.
Clutch, with Neil Fallon at far right.
The underground hit "Spacegrass," from Clutch's eponymous 1995 sophomore album, got the band pegged with the stoner-rock tag, but the quartet refused to be pigeonholed by easy categorization. Drawing freely on metal, hardcore, hip hop, funk and blues, the band has forged a swampy, southern-tinged brand of heavy-duty rock that remains truly unique. After delving deeper into blues grit on 2007's From Beale Street to Oblivion and its follow-up Strange Cousins From the West, the group returns to pugilistic form with the hard-hitting songs heard on its latest release for Clutch's Weathermaker imprint, Earth Rocker. Packed with pulverizing uptempo tracks like "Unto the Breach" and "Crucial Velocity," the new effort stands as one of the band's best yet. Clutch vocalist Fallon recently spoke with All Shook Down about the new album and his inspirations as a lyricist and singer ahead of the group's show at the Regency Ballroom on Tuesday, March 26.
"D.C. Sound Attack" is the first time Jean-Paul has dropped a go-go beat in a Clutch song since "Release the Kraken" from Jam Room back in 1999. What took so long? I've been waiting forever.
Well, I'm glad you recognize it for what it is. We've been doing that go-go breakdown for years onstage live. Usually it would be after a song; we'd jam it and then go into something else. It was something that we would particularly do at festivals. Jean-Paul kind of had the same thoughts you did on the subject, like 'Why don't we put this in a song? It's one of our signature moves onstage.' We had talked about that, and then after going through pre-production with that song, he said, 'This is the song with the perfect tempo and perfect swing for a go-go beat.' I never would have heard that, because I'm not a drummer. But lo and behold he was right and we threw it in there. It's always fun to play those little jams. It takes people by surprise.
I've always thought since "Release the Kraken" that you guys should put out a go-go covers EP. Just pick out three or four classics, stretch out on them and put it out. You're the only heavy band that I can imagine pulling that off, but it would be rad.
A go-go EP isn't the worst idea in the world.
Please, take it and run with it if you guys get the time. There's always been an element of preacher's fervor in your delivery, but it seems on both "Earth Rocker" and "The Face" that the lyrics speak to the redemptive power of rock, or almost rock as religion more specifically than any songs you've written before. What inspired the lyrics to those two tunes?
You know, the older I get, the more appreciative [I get] of what I've been able to do all these years. To be able to make a living through the creative arts is a rare thing, and I'm grateful for that. I also see it as a fragile thing. I guess I have some kind of naive or romantic notion of the "dangerous" period of rock that is no longer with us, when records were banned and you weren't allowed to listen to it and it was considered the single biggest cultural threat to western civilization.
Nowadays it's so easy, and I wonder sometimes if that's diluting it to some degree. Sure, it's great that you can find out about bands on the Internet and listen to them in your home, and it's great that it's easy to go to shows and it's great that you have a Guitar Center down the street. That accessibility is good to some degree, but at the same time it kind of saps the threat or the challenge from it. I always want to keep that in mind. That's kind of the attitude that came about when listening to Motorhead. Lemmy commented in his documentary that Chuck Berry and Little Richard were his inspiration, and you can hear that. I think it's important to always keep in mind the source of rock 'n' roll and respect it and understand that it is a fragile thing.
I met a guy who came from Islamabad to Germany to see our show, because of course we're not playing in Pakistan. He was saying they have secret listening parties and secret metal shows there because they'd get the shit kicked out of them or even killed if they got busted. To me that was really inspiring, that not only did they come all the way to see us, but that it was that important to him. We take it too much for granted.
I've always been fascinated by your lyrics because of the way you draw on sci-fi elements alongside biblical and historic references. When you make references like on "Unto the Breach" -- mentioning the Gutenberg Bible and moveable type -- are you trying to keep the listener on their toes?
I think it's more to keep myself on my toes. Some people write emotional lyrics about love found and love lost. To me, that seems like a good way to get sick of singing a song very quickly, because you either get over it or you don't want to revisit past pains or triumphs or what have you. When you write a fiction, you can tell it over and over and over again and replay that movie in your head. It doesn't really get old for me. And when I look at the lyrics on the page, I'd also like to think that just the written text without the music is also interesting.
I think I gravitated towards that because, at the beginning of this band, I didn't even conceive of melody and pitch. I was kind of relying on lyrics to kind of cover up the fact that I had no clue of what I was doing as a vocalist. So I slowly taught myself those things about melody and pitch. Half the time, I couldn't tell you exactly what a song is about, and I think that's a good thing. If you know exactly what it's about, the mystery is gone, and there should be some kind of mystery. Also, I'll admit there is a bit of self-congratulation when I'm able to put something like the Gutenberg Bible into a heavy metal song just for my own shits and giggles.
You touched on this a bit just now, but one of the things that always struck me about your singing style has been the rhythmic cadence of your delivery. The phrasing seems as important as the melody. Do the sounds and patterns of the vocals come to you before the words, or is it that you have the lyrics and you're just figuring out how it fits into the song?
It's usually rhythmic first, because I'm better at that than I am with melody. When the band was first starting out, I was much more entrenched in hardcore and punk-rock aesthetics. For some reason I had it in my head that if you did melody that that was some kind of commercial sell out. You had to bark out everything, and that was just young naiveté.
But because of that, I think my earliest influences on what I was trying to do were Tom Waits and Chuck D from Public Enemy. Chuck D's rhythm was insane, and Tom Waits didn't necessarily have a beautiful singing voice, but it was beautiful in its own ugliness. And I thought maybe I could emulate that to some degree.
When I write lyrics -- I don't know if it really affects the outcome -- but I scan it for meter; for unstressed and stressed [syllables]. And if some line ends up being in trochaic pentameter or what have you, then that's another thing for my own shits and giggles. I may be the only one who notices. And then melody, that's always a challenge for me. I'm still trying to learn that and expand my range.
My next question was going to be how much of an influence hip-hop had on your delivery and if there were any MCs you admired. Who besides Chuck D were you listening to?
Starting out, I was also really big into Eric B and Rakim. Rakim is still one of the best MCs ever. Of course I listened to a lot of the other hip-hop acts that everyone was listening to, like Run DMC and Stetsasonic. I still listen to mostly '80s and '90s rap; I also loved the Wu-Tang Clan. There was somebody newer I was listening to the other day who I thought was pretty great. This big guy with a red beard...
Was it Action Bronson?
Yeah, that's him. Exactly. I don't know much about him, but I'm glad to hear there's stuff out there that isn't necessarily always like Jay-Z, even though I think he's a great rapper. Again, I like the threat. I remember the first time I heard Straight Outta Compton, it scared the shit out of me. I couldn't stop listening to it. It was like a car wreck. I couldn't take my eyes away, or in this case, my ears. Now hip-hop is selling Pepsi. I guess in the same fashion, I still have a romantic nostalgia for when hip-hop was really threatening and scary.